Saturday, February 1, 2020

"How will you measure your life?"

It's actually really important that you succeed at what you're succeeding at, but that isn't going to be the measure of your life."--Clayton Christianson

"I am done with great things and big plans, great institutions, and big successes. I am for those tiny, invisible loving human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, yet which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of human pride." --William James 

My people...

Last week one of the foremost business thinkers of our time, Clayton Christianson, died in Boston after many years of some health problems. A few years ago my daughter worked at Harvard Business School, where he taught, and she would see him passing in the halls and say hello. At that time I read his book by the same title of this blog, How Will You Measure Your Life? With a new calendar year, I had been thinking about his insights recently. Then, I heard of his passing and realized that I needed some solo soul time.

With the beginning of a new year, a new decade, (and I have come back to China to live again). I was thinking about what I would use to measure a wonderful life--one that will bring not only happiness but deep peace and satisfaction. How does that happen? What constitutes a meaningful life? And what are the metrics that measure that? My Blog on how ancient Egypt measured their life in "Egypt: Time and Immortality"

Most recently I have been thinking about becoming and how to get to the place we want to be. How we get to a destination is almost as important as finally arriving. Taking the time to reflect on how all those minutes we have each day are actually spent is important. I am convinced the decisions in those hours and days as the years accumulate shape us in profound ways. I believe as we ultimately measure our life, our path must be intentional if we want it to be successful. There are no short cuts, no royal road--just continuing to paint all the strokes on the painting. And then viola, there is a gorgeous masterpiece we created.

When I was 23, I listed my goals for the next five years in a ragged book. Once and a while (not nearly as often as I should have) I reviewed these written goals.  Since they were written, they were also subconsciously etched in the back of my mind. I was a little shocked when I came upon that book many years later and realized I had achieved every one. They were not unsurmountable, but each took some planning, adjusting, and work. I honestly believe it is very unlikely I would have been successful if I had not written them down or at least reflected upon those goals. These kinds of aspirations are the "checklist" variety. What about the goals that are the very most important that lack a simple qualitative measure--like developing loving relationships or fostering a personality that can nourish those who depend on you. Empathy and compassion are vital and exceptionally difficult. So again, how do we measure these critical capacities?

Since I am a person of faith, my relationship with God is very important to me. (I liked what Christianson said, "I don't only want to believe in God. I want to believe God). Furthermore, I determined I wanted people, relationships, and family to be a high barometer (the metrics of focus) on my scale of happiness. Also, I hoped to make the world a little better--all three things most everyone in this world wants from the allotment of time we are given to breathe on this earth. Essentially, we are given time, and we must measure our days and years to make make sure they eventually matter.

Years ago I had the chance to learn this seminal lesson from my sister-in-law, Joan Shumway Erickson, who was battling cancer, a struggle that would take her life. She was a young mom, age 34, with four children. I had two little girls and was expecting a son. We had both just moved to Los Angeles, and knew very few people. Consequently, in the last year of her life, I concentrated on being with her. There were not many other people she knew so I committed to being with her as much as possible. 

She spent the last six out of the nine months of her life in a hospital--trying to do anything to save her life. Since the hospital was not too far from our apartment, I went to see her almost daily. Consequently, it was in the sanctuary of a hospital room I spent some of the most important and shaping conversations of my life. Our conversations still linger in my heart.

We were both young, but she was traveling a new and unknown portal--where I was far behind on the path. So I listened as she spoke about her dreams. Gradually, she knew and accepted many desires that would not happen in this life. In those conversations, the curtain of what really mattered began to open for me. All of a sudden I got it. I understood with clarity what she was telling me: it was in relationships--her family and individual interactions--these would be the barometer of her success. Although she had been the commencement speaker at her university and achieved many honors of life, those were not her yardstick of an accomplished life.

While she was a person of little conflict, a few times I was in her hospital room as she called someone to make sure there was a feeling of peace between them in their relationship. She repeatedly called people to let them know of her love for them. Sometimes she even called and said goodbye to them-- knowing that her remaining time was short. I heard her speak of hallowed memories, as she gave them sincere compliments and praise. She said a few words to me that have always brought me a sense of great belonging and love, "You are not my sister-in-law anymore. You are my sister. I love you so much." That is the way the last few months of her life were lived. Those were holy days for me. All these years later, I still remember watching a life that was immeasurably successful--one that I wanted to emulate.

There was not any more time for the superfluous or inconsequential as Joan began to accept that she would not recover. We laughed a lot because she had a fine-tuned sense of humor. Sometimes there would be six or seven hospital volunteers in her room so they could laugh and hear her insights from her brilliant and well-read mind. Being with her in those months was one of the greatest gifts anyone has ever given me. When she said, "I would do anything to go home and change a diaper and wipe my child's nose," it really changed my life. It sounds simple, but it is true. I began to stop hearing the world's sirens blaring in my life--telling me what composed a successful life. Instead, I heard Joan's voice, and I knew how to measure more what really mattered.

The noise of the world's clamoring for success began to not be as important to me. And sometimes,  in quiet moments, sparks and a few lighting bolts have retaught and reiterated what Joan taught me long ago. The accolades of the world are fun but fleeting. For me, one of the ways to appraise my life is to feel in moments throughout the day or week: "This is the most wonderful moment in the world right now."

I remember one night, about fifteen years ago, I went on a walk alone at dusk. At that time, there were six children living with us, and my blind father-in-law. Sometimes I was exhausted, I admit. It was a busy time. As I came around the corner, I peered into our house windows from the street (our house was always a fishbowl on the bottom floor). It was Christmastime, and the tree was perched brightly in the corner. Inside I could see one child playing the piano, someone else preparing food in the kitchen, another child stretched out on the floor playing chess with my husband by the fire. Another child sat on their grandpa's chair next to him. I stood there for a while and marveled. Yes, this scene before me required everything out of me sometimes. But it was worth it, and there was nowhere else I would rather be.

I was grateful and glad I could walk in my warm house--knowing it was home, and they all belonged to me. It was a "metric moment." So that is how I measure my life, ordinary as that might be--the feeling I know that the people I love are there, and with me. They forgive me, and we watch each other grow.

The night when I had my "metric moment" looking into my house when we lived in St. Louis

Capturing a "metric moment" when I knew that having a family was swelling my heart, bursting it right open. I loved seeing my husband become a new father. So many "metric moments"... A new #GirlDad

When I found out Elias, our son with autism could ski...

When I knew my love of other cultures would always take me around the world...

When my dad and one of his namesakes, our son, having a big hug a few years before Dad died...

I love my big family and our reunions.

My husband took me to see YoYo Ma when I first started to play the cello.

Remembering the love I always had for my mother and father-in-law....

Surprising my husband on his 29th birthday in New York City...


  1. I think this is one of my favourite posts of yours. Often I struggle with being 'just a mother' and feeling unsuccessful. You give me so much to think about, that has been on my mind lately. You've also inspired me to set some goals and write them down. Love you. Francesca ❤

  2. Thank you for this-I forwarded it to all of Joan's precious ones in case they missed it. Joan has been on my mind the last couple of days for some reason and I always have tender feelings when I think of her. I really look forward to the day when I can meet her. Love you, Jeannie

  3. I love you Maryan!!
    Thanks for sharing your beautiful, inspiring words. I needed to hear them. You are a blessing to me. I wish I could hug you right now..